Lattice Insights

Are You Overlooking Individual Contributor Career Paths?

August 4, 2022
August 11, 2022
  —  
By 
Julia Markish
Lattice Team

Most career paths assume that development is linear: An employee progresses from being an individual contributor (IC) to being a manager. However, this erroneously assumes there is only one career path for everyone — and that path always leads to management. 

The reality is, not all ICs are suited to be nor want to become a manager. To maximize the potential of all your employees, it’s essential to take individual skills into account and create career paths that give ICs the opportunity to grow in a non-managerial way. 

The Difference Between Individual Contributors and Managers

An individual contributor is simply an employee who doesn’t manage other people. This can be the case for entry-level employees, but also for senior and specialized roles as well. Gallup defines a manager as “someone who is responsible for leading a team toward common objectives.” A manager enables their department or team to work toward achieving business priorities and OKRs. And managers not only manage their teams’ goals, but are also responsible for employee growth and development

When you look at the skills of an IC versus those of a manager, there is some overlap. In a general competency matrix for an IC vs. that of a manager, you’ll often find common themes that contribute to success in both roles. For example:

  • Impact: Scope and complexity, autonomy and prioritization, and problem-solving
  • Behavior: Collaboration and feedback, communication, reliability, and living values
  • Functional Skills: Expertise, tools, and product knowledge

However, a manager competency matrix will additionally have specific management competencies. These include:

  • Development: The ability to develop and grow a team
  • Supervision: How you delegate work across your team
  • Responsibility: What work you are accountable for

Often, a Manager at a given level will have fewer expectations in Functional Skills as an IC at an equivalent level, with their managerial competencies having “squeezed out” the expectations of deep expertise, so to speak. 

Individual Contributors Don’t Necessarily Make Good Managers

But being a high-performing individual contributor doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be a good manager; as we saw above, managing requires a different set of skills and involves a different set of problems to solve: you need to be able to motivate people, distill information, negotiate with other functions, make decisions on behalf of others, and more. The reality is that not everyone is predisposed to — or interested in developing in — these areas. 

However, the IC-to-manager career path is deeply ingrained in most companies. In its State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders report, Gallup found that the two main reasons people become managers are:

  1. They were promoted because they were successful in a previous non-managerial role.
  2. They have a lot of experience and tenure in their company or field.

Neither of these reasons takes into consideration that the employee actually has the skills or training required to be a manager. In this same report, Gallup also found that 82% of the time, companies don’t pick the right candidates to become managers. This is due to the fact that inherent managerial talent is relatively rare: Only about one in 10 people have high talent to manage people, and another two in 10 have some of the required talents and can become successful with the right coaching, the report said.

In 2009, Google launched an initiative called Project Oxygen, through which statisticians at the company analyzed performance reviews, surveys, and top manager nominations to identify what makes a good manager. 

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” said Laszlo Bock, former SVP of People Operations at Google, in a 2011 article in The New York Times. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

When companies hire managers based on managerial talent, the Gallup report found that these organizations see 48% higher profitability, 22% higher productivity, 30% higher employee engagement scores, 17% higher customer engagement scores, and 19% lower turnover. Having the wrong people in managerial positions is not only detrimental to the success of the individuals in those roles — it can also have a negative impact on the company as a whole.  

Talent aside, some people just don’t want to be managers. A BCG and Ipsos survey found that only one in 10 non-managers want to become a manager, due to a number of factors including increasing complexity in business, competing priorities, and working on an increasing number of distracting activities that prevent them from getting work done. For these people, growing their responsibilities and deepening their skills as an individual contributor could be a more desired and rewarding path.

How to Develop Skills for an Individual Contributor

Given that not everyone has the skills or desire to move into managerial positions, ICs must have more than one path for growth. As an organization, providing various career paths based on talent and skills is essential. Here’s how.

1. Leverage competency matrices.

Having clearly defined competencies helps employees focus on what’s important to the organization, and can also help with employee development conversations and performance reviews by providing clarity on what the next step is in the career progression for an individual contributor. An IC competency matrix can focus on increasing impact, improving communication, and developing deep expertise in specific areas. As an IC increases their responsibilities and skills, the job levels (either numerical or having “senior” in the job title) should also match to recognize promotions and career progression.

As importantly, having distinct manager-focused competencies — and built-out matrices — allows ICs to make informed decisions about which path they would like to pursue.

2. Use individual development plans.

Individual development plans (IDPs) are important for establishing long-term career goals and the short-term plans needed to achieve them. A competency matrix can help identify the typical next steps for a given role, but it’s important that the IC has the opportunity to think more broadly about their career, and be able to have generative conversations with their manager about the options they’re exploring. 

IDPs are also a great way to track strengths and areas for improvement. These may first be identified in a performance review, but a living IDP allows individuals to keep an updated view of what they enjoy doing, and what they’re less energized by. Thus, an IDP can help an individual contributor recognize that their strengths do not align with management skills, in which case they can proactively explore what opportunities better suit their skills and interests, rather than automatically getting propelled into a management track. 

3. Embrace IC career paths.

In most organizations, a manager title has more implied responsibility and seniority than an individual contributor title. But the impact of an IC can be just as significant as that of a manager. Companies need to make changes at the organizational level to demonstrate that there are multiple paths to success, all of which are equally valid and valuable — and not all of which require managing others.

Career paths don’t necessarily need to be linear, and can look more like a lattice depending on an individual’s goals. Some managers may want to move into an IC role, and that shouldn’t be considered a demotion or step back, but rather a refocusing of goals. Ineffective managers can be costly for an organization, so having people who are better suited to be individual contributors move from a managerial position into an IC role can improve employee engagement and happiness, as well as company performance. 

Even though ICs do not have official managerial responsibilities, they can still have influential and leadership roles within an organization. Mentorship programs, for example, can allow ICs to help more junior employees grow, which can lead to improved employee engagement

“While not managing (formally), one of my favorite experiences was mentoring several [product managers] and aspiring PMs when they sought my guidance,” said Koun Han in an article on Medium. Han has been at the highest level IC Product Manager at payment-processing solution Square and Zoox, a subsidiary of Amazon that develops autonomous vehicles, and now works at identity-verification service Persona. . “I believe that this relationship allowed me to be more genuine and honest, without the complexity of reporting lines,” continued Han. 

“Ironically perhaps…in those situations [I was] better positioned than most of the managers to share relevant experiences, best practices, guides/templates, and general career advice with other PMs.Not only having been in their shoes before, but being currently in their shoes seemed to lend my perspective significant credibility.”

Takeaway

An organization is always going to have more individual contributors than managers, and while it is important to identify and develop managers, it’s equally important to develop their ICs. Not every individual contributor has the skills needed for managerial roles, but they may have other skills that lead to deeper expertise or specialization in certain topics. Furthermore, putting the wrong IC into a manager role can have devastating effects on their resulting direct reports’ engagement and productivity. Developing career paths tailored to the skills, strengths, and preferences of ICs — instead of ones that always assume management is the goal — can improve employee engagement, increase the impact of individual contributors, and help contribute to overall organizational success. 

Want to maximize the potential of your workforce? Develop individual contributor competency matrices, IDPs, and career tracks with Lattice Grow.